Christians and Muslims. eying each other with interest
December 14, 2004 2:36 PM   Subscribe

The Truth About Muslims. William Dalrymple, one of those rare historians who can really write (his books From the Holy Mountain and White Mughals have gotten rave reviews), takes on Bernard Lewis and gives some fascinating information about the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims through the centuries:
Fletcher also stresses the degree to which the Muslim armies were welcomed as liberators by the Syriac and Coptic Christians, who had suffered discrimination under the strictly Orthodox Byzantines: "To the persecuted Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt, Muslims could be presented as deliverers. The same could be said of the persecuted Jews.... Released from the bondage of Constantinopolitan persecution they flourished as never before, generating in the process a rich spiritual literature in hymns, prayers, sermons and devotional work."
posted by languagehat (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Contrary to Lewis's thesis that Muslims have not been interested in the West, Dalrymple describes "a succession of previously unknown seventeenth-century travel narratives..., with Arab writer after writer describing his intense interest in and excitement with Western science, literature, music, politics, and even opera." And don't miss the 1603 proposal by the King of Morocco to his English ally, Queen Elizabeth I, that England help the Moors colonize America!
posted by languagehat at 2:37 PM on December 14, 2004

Previously cited here, but I'm glad to see it on the front page. Everything Dalrymple writes is worth reading, and this is an excellent article, which came out just before the US election and therefore didn't get the attention it deserved.
posted by verstegan at 2:50 PM on December 14, 2004

Yes, the intersection of Muslim and Western cultures has produced some beautiful results. (I've spent a few very happy hours in the Moorish garden pictured on the link, and it is among the most esthetically lovely, romantic, and sensual of any sort of garden.) I think of the Spanish Moorish visual style as brilliantly blending precision with lushness; it's strikingly colorful and rich, but so well-ordered that it avoids being overpowering or precious.

Thanks for the article, languagehat. I would have missed it otherwise.
posted by melissa may at 3:10 PM on December 14, 2004

Wow. I've promptly ordered Fletcher's latest book through ILL. As a jaded library staffer, a review has to be pretty informative and well-written to inspire instant ILL.

I found the bit about how many of the Byzantines considered Muslims to be Nestorian heterodox Christians fascinating.

Now to go ILL some Dalrymple...
posted by QIbHom at 3:25 PM on December 14, 2004

...with Arab writer after writer describing his intense interest in and excitement with Western science, literature, music, politics, and even opera...
Interestingly, the muslim heroes in Montesqieu's Persian Letters do exactly that... Montesquieu's epistolary novel belongs to a genre popular at the time, but perhaps those actual muslim tourists met a few people along the way...
posted by elgilito at 3:27 PM on December 14, 2004

See too the recent article on the Crusades in The New Yorker--deals with what and why the crusades.
posted by Postroad at 3:30 PM on December 14, 2004

Funny, From the Holy Mountain is sitting on my desk, right now. It's on my short-list of books to read in the near future.

The muslim takeover of Egypt was complete by 641 AD. However, keep in mind that by the 8th and 9th centuries or so, the Copts were started to chafe under the Muslim yoke and started various uprisings.

At first, the taxes levied by the Muslims against the Christians were lower than the Roman/Byzantine taxes, and all seemed well. Over time, of course, the taxes levied by the Muslims got higher and higher. To whit (from the above source):

In 828 another Coptic revolt broke out, and in 831 the Copts joined with the Arabs against the government. In 832 the Copts were compelled to surrender; the males were massacred and the women and children sold as slaves. The Copts never again rose against the Muslims.

The early Muslim rule over the mediterranean has been highly romanticized. The source Dalrymple quotes from is no exception to this tendency.
posted by deanc at 3:45 PM on December 14, 2004

As any stock trader will tell you, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:56 PM on December 14, 2004

Postroad: New Yorker link on Monty Python musical: mistake or humor that's over my head?
posted by allan at 4:45 PM on December 14, 2004

I haven't had time to read the entire article yet (I bookmarked it so I can go through it after my exams), but it looks fantastic. You've been finding some cool stuff lately, mr hat.
posted by The God Complex at 6:02 PM on December 14, 2004

The early Muslim rule over the mediterranean has been highly romanticized.

Of course, the Crusaders have never been subject to such treatment.

Dalrymple makes the pretty convincing argument in From the Holy Mountain that in its early days, Islam would most likely have been regarded as another schismatic Arian or monophysite sect among many, just as Christianity was probably regarded as a quirky, anti-establishment Jewish sect. I'm not well-enough versed in the history to know whether the difference between remaining a schismatic enclave and becoming a world religion is theological or political. But you can certainly imagine a degree of complacency towards Islam, based upon the precedent of those earlier weirdo schismatics: there's a kind of continuity that only in hindsight is seens as a paradigm shift.

And it's beyond question that early Christianity was closer in practice to contemporary Levantine Islam (especially in places like Syria) than its modern descendent. That's partly because syncretism has been the rule rather than the exception throughout history.
posted by riviera at 6:04 PM on December 14, 2004

To Allan: sorry. Here it is, called Holy Smoke--
posted by Postroad at 6:21 PM on December 14, 2004

Anyone interested in early Muslim history should get hold of Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook; it's an extreme (and extremely snotty) criticism of the sources for early Islam and the way they've been interpreted, and the authors suggest Muhammad may have thought of himself as restoring Judaism (remember, the original direction of prayer was towards Jerusalem), with the whole new-religion thing developing after his death. There's a summary of the first section here, and you can read a section on Assyria and Babylonia here.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 PM on December 14, 2004

From the Holy Mountain is indeed an interesting journey through the fraying fabric of Byzantine Christianity (if I may mix my metaphors). There are a lot of people I wish I could require to read it.

Particularly unforgettable: the contrast between Turkey/Israel, where Christians face persecution and pressure to the point of oblivion, and Syria, where many sects of Christians are flourishing to the max. (Not exactly the configuration of the world as imagined by most Bush voters. Dalrymple also visits with the Christian communities of Athos and Egypt.)
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:36 PM on December 14, 2004

Bernard Lewis Revisited
posted by Firas at 7:37 PM on December 14, 2004 [1 favorite]

An interesting personal political perspective on Jordan, the Saudis, and others in the region derived from experience by Ambassador Hume Alexander Horan. A statesmen and a scholar, Horan was perhaps the most accomplished Arabic linguist to serve in the U.S. Foreign Service.
posted by semmi at 3:09 PM on December 15, 2004

An Islamist Endorsement of Bernard Lewis

What a joke. There's nothing 'islamist' about the Muslim Student Association.
posted by Firas at 7:11 PM on December 15, 2004 [1 favorite]

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